Outside of possibly Bench Presses, Squats and Deadlifts, no other exercise is as popular in the weight room as the Power Clean. And for good reason. The Power Clean has been associated with building power and strength specific to the needs of sports like American football and overall sprinting performance.
What is it about the Power Clean that makes it such a great tool for athletic performance? It could be the fact that the Power Clean focuses on rate of force development. Strength is important in sports; however, the speed at which you can produce maximum force is even more important. The Power Clean and its variations help athletes learn how to express force faster.
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These exercises place emphasis on the posterior chain—i.e., the close interaction of the hamstrings, glutes and overall core. The posterior chain of muscles are those that are most closely associated with the body’s high levels of power output. That’s why we normally see well-developed hamstrings and glutes on high level sprinters.
Some strength coaches mention the importance of triple extension, which we see when athletes run, jump and perform what we consider “athletic actions.” Triple extension is the synergistic action of the ankle, knee and hip to create the most powerful and efficient movement.
Triple extension solves some of the complexity for strength coaches who teach the full Olympic lifts. Researchers even point out in International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance that “previous literature suggests that the Clean Pull, Snatch Pull, Hang High Pull, Jump Shrug, and Mid-Thigh Pull may provide a training stimulus that is as good as, if not better than, weightlifting movements that include the catch phase.”
The reality is that a combination of factors makes the Power Clean a staple in most strength and conditioning programs. However, what is rarely ever looked at is how we can use concepts of these movements to develop these qualities in more diverse and three dimensional ways.
Re-Thinking Athletic Power
When it comes to many other strength training exercises, we have many forms of each major movement. For example, there are multiple versions of the Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift to train a movement in different manners.
Yet, when it comes to the power movements, we often get “stuck” in the traditional Olympic lifting concepts. But just like the lifts mentioned above, you can perform variations of the Power Clean and other Olympic lifting exercises. You still use the same fundamentals, but making slight adjustments allows you to train different aspects of athleticism.
With that said, here are four of the best Power Clean variations for becoming a better athlete.
1. Athletic Cleans
What makes these Olympic lift variations so different? The most obvious thing is that we are changing the positions in which we are asking you to develop power and strength. This is important because we automatically assume that the strength we develop in a linear manner translates to all movement directions, angles and patterns. This just isn’t the case. More research is pointing to the need to develop strength in multi-directional patterns.
This is a paradigm shift, and it means using functional fitness tools other than the barbell to develop these qualities. It’s not for variety’s sake, but because it allows us to target the movement strategies more effectively. Kettlebells and sandbags are at the heart of these variations, because they allow us to most effectively and safely integrate more functional concepts into practical progressions.
2. Sprinter Stance Kettlebell Cleans
The Sprinter Stance is an idea from our Dynamic Variable Resistance Training system (DVRT), which allows us to progressively and incrementally change body position to alter instability. It’s important to note that too great a change in an exercise’s instability actually reduces power and strength training. Therefore, just as we would be incremental with load, volume and density, we want to do the same with instability.
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The Sprinter Stance takes us to a position where we have slightly different load application in our legs. Such a change causes the body to learn not only to create force, but to resist it as well! Most injuries that occur in sport are from the inability to resist, not create force. In these Sprinter Stance Cleans, we bring in the frontal and transverse planes over time to develop power production that relates to the greater demands of sport. These kettlebell progressions allow you to see how load is just one element that we can use to challenge this drill.
3. Lateral Sandbag Cleans
Moving in different planes of motion can be quite challenging for an individual to produce strength and power. Plane of motion changes are similar to body position changes in that they alter stability and coordination. Again, we want to be progressive, and moving laterally provides a large base of support to learn good movement mechanics, offering the strength coach an opportunity to evaluate fundamental change-of-direction abilities.
The sandbag offers the coach and athlete a tool that is friendly to move in different patterns. If used correctly, it provides feedback on proper positioning and alignment. The slight instability of the sandbag itself also lets us know if we are compensating and moving inefficiently.
4. Lawnmower Kettlebell Cleans
Most sports require great strength in rotation; yet our training is almost exclusively devoted to medicine ball drills, bands, and a few landmine exercises. We rarely put the same focus and emphasis on strength-speed in rotational training as we do in more common linear lifts. This obviously doesn’t make a lot of sense for optimal athletic development.
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Lawnmower Kettlebell Cleans allow us to train the Power Clean in an effective manner. With its progressions and variations, we can aim to provide the athlete with strength that actually meets some of the most missed parts of their sports training.
5. MAX Sandbag Lunge Clean
The MAX in the MAX Sandbag Lunge stands for “multiple axis.” The Lunge has the weight moving in a different direction from the body. It’s an unusual concept. Typically, the load moves in line with our movement. This makes the Lunge not only a strength drill, but an exercise that teaches us how to resist force as well.
This type of Lunge is a form of a lift/chop, a popular core training drill to build strength in the deep core stabilizers and develop a more reflexive type of core strength. Due to the complexity of the drill, we start slowly; but as we gain proficiency, we create a great Clean variation that amplifies these concepts.
Will You Get Strong?
The concern with many strength coaches might be, “can you develop the same power and strength that you can with the barbell?” Your numbers will be less, but that is a function of two important concepts. The first is that the load of kettlebells and sandbags does not compare 1:1 with the barbell. Due to their unique shape, leverage, instability and other factors, kettlebell and sandbag weights may appear much lighter, but many athletes find them more challenging!
The other reason why we develop great strength with what seems like lighter loads is the greater complexity of the movements. When you are very balanced and stable while lifting something predictable, you can use more load. This might be beneficial for straight-ahead-only competition like sprinting, but it could be limiting for the multi-directional athlete. Even coaches in the former Soviet Olympic program knew the value of going beyond such training. They called it “imperfection training.”
The only way to truly know, though, is to add these variations to your programs. The complexity and the power you want from these movements means you want the programming to be similar to that of the Power Clean. That means fewer repetitions, early in workouts, and make sure to provide ample rest for optimal performance.
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- Jacobson, Bert H., et al. “Relationship Between Selected Strength and Power Assessments to Peak and Average Velocity of the Drive Block in Offensive Line Play.” Journal of strength and conditioning research 30.8 (2016): 2202-2205.
- Seitz, Laurent B., Gabriel S. Trajano, and G. Gregory Haff. “The back squat and the power clean: elicitation of different degrees of potentiation.” International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 9.4 (2014): 643-649.
- Suchomel, Timothy J., Paul Comfort, and Michael H. Stone. “Weightlifting pulling derivatives: Rationale for implementation and application.” Sports Medicine 45.6 (2015): 823-839.
- Eccentric Overload Training in Team-Sports Functional Performance: Constant Bilateral Vertical vs. Variable Unilateral Multidirectional Movements.